Shireen Abu Akleh likely killed by IDF gunfire in Jenin, Israel admits

There is a “high probability” that the shot that killed the Palestinian journalist was fired by an Israeli soldier returning fire, the Israeli military found.

 Artist Jaber Abbas, 35 years old, applies final touches to a mural that he painted to pay tribute to Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank, in Nazareth, Israel May 16, 2022.  (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Artist Jaber Abbas, 35 years old, applies final touches to a mural that he painted to pay tribute to Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank, in Nazareth, Israel May 16, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

An IDF investigation found that an Israeli soldier was likely to have accidentally shot Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during a gunfight in Jenin in May, and dismissed the need for a criminal probe.

“There is a high possibility that Shireen was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire that was fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen, during an exchange of fire in which life-risking, widespread and indiscriminate shots were fired toward IDF soldiers,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said on Monday.

It was the strongest IDF statement to date with respect to its possible culpability in Abu Akleh’s death. However, it came alongside army clarification that no such statement of guilt was possible given the impossibility of determining with certainty who shot the fatal bullet.

"There is a high possibility that Shireen was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire"

The IDF's Spokesperson's Unit

“Another possibility remains that Abu Akleh was hit by bullets fired by Palestinian militants,” the statement said.

The probe’s conclusions, which were issued at the end of Labor Day weekend in the US, came after months of pressure from the Biden administration both publicly and behind the scenes.

 Family and friends carry the coffin of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin in Jenin, May 13, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD) Family and friends carry the coffin of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin in Jenin, May 13, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

The investigation into Abu Akleh's death

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman brought up Abu Akleh in a meeting with National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata in Washington nearly two weeks ago. A statement released following the meeting said she “emphasized the need for accountability” in that tragic killing.

A Palestinian Authority official determined that the IDF had deliberately killed her and Abu Akleh’s family has made a similar charge. The PA said on Monday that the IDF conclusions were an attempt to evade responsibility.

Abu Akleh’s family said on Monday that it was not surprised by the investigation’s conclusions, “since it’s obvious to anyone that Israeli war criminals cannot investigate their own crimes.

“However, we remain deeply hurt, frustrated and disappointed,” the family added.

Given that the family did not expect justice from Israel, it has focused its attention on the US, hoping to pressure the Biden administration to allow for an FBI investigation.

“Since Shireen was killed, our family has called for a thorough, independent and credible US investigation that led to accountability, which is the bare minimum the US government should do for one of their own citizens.... We continue to call on the many members of Congress, civil society organizations, journalists and the public to keep the pressure on President [Joe] Biden and Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken to follow through with meaningful action.”

The family also continued to call on the International Criminal Court to investigate her killing.

“Israel’s killing of our dear Shireen cannot be swept aside. No other family should have to endure what our family has had to. We cannot and will not stop until we have justice for Shireen,” the family said.

Abu Akleh’s niece Lina said of the probe details, “We could never expect any type of accountability or legitimate investigation from the very entity responsible for gunning down an unarmed and clearly identifiable journalist.”

While the IDF said it would be impossible to fully determine who the killer was, a senior IDF officer who spoke to journalists said there was a “higher probability” that the shot that killed Abu Akleh was fired by an Israeli soldier “accidentally, when he was under fire and returned fire where he had recognized armed militants shooting at him.”

The senior officer said the soldier was inside an armored vehicle and was using a telescopic lens when he misidentified Abu Akley. The soldier fired a total of 20 bullets throughout the event.

The senior officer told reporters that the Jenin refugee camp is “a very complicated area” to operate in and sees gunfights between militants and IDF forces “regularly.”

How was Abu Akleh killed?

Abu Akleh, who was wearing a press vest and helmet, was struck by a bullet to the head while covering an IDF raid that saw heavy clashes between forces and Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Jenin on May 11.

The military said forces entered Jenin in order to carry out arrests and they were met by “widespread and uncontrolled gunfire,” as well as accurate shots and improvised explosive devices hurled toward troops for close to an hour and a half.

Abu Akleh was killed and another journalist, Ali Sammoudi, was injured toward the end of the raid on the outskirts of Burkin near Jenin.

The IDF said it “thoroughly” investigated the circumstances of her death, including appointing a special team led by Lt.-Col. Menni Liberty – the head of the Commando Brigade.

The conclusions of the preliminary investigation were given to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi, who ordered the IDF to continue investigating the event. The military then added a team from the Technological Array of the Special Operations Division of the Intelligence Directorate (J2), led by Col. “R,” to the task force.

The military proceeded to widen the investigation. It questioned the troops involved in the event and carried out a chronological analysis of the events. The IDF said it used an array of technological means and carried out various forensic and ballistic investigations, examining additional information that had been published regarding the event, including materials from foreign media organizations as well as video and audio documentation.

Israel, the senior officer said, asked the Palestinians numerous times to cooperate with them in the investigation but “we did not receive any help from the Palestinians in order to build a better picture of the event.”

 Palestinians walk in front of a mural depicting the slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh ahead of the visit of US President Joe Biden at Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 13, 2022 (credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS) Palestinians walk in front of a mural depicting the slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh ahead of the visit of US President Joe Biden at Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 13, 2022 (credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)

“The death of Shireen Abu Akleh is a devastating incident,” said IDF Chief of Staff Kohavi adding that “the incident took place during operational activity intended to prevent Palestinian terrorism, which calls for the harming of Israeli civilians.”

Kohavi stated that the IDF operates professionally “every night while taking actions to avoid harming non-combatants. The IDF takes great efforts to this end while working to allow press coverage and freedom of the press. Palestinian terrorists hide and operate from within the Palestinian population, endangering their lives on an ongoing basis. This is an immense challenge for the IDF, but it is our professional and moral duty to stop and prevent terrorism, as well as achieve our goal - to defend Israeli civilians and the State of Israel."

"The IDF takes great efforts to this end while working to allow press coverage and freedom of the press"

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi

Israel criticized by UN, Palestinians frustrated

After Kohavi received the full findings of the investigation, he concluded that the military had “turned over every stone” and was thorough and comprehensive.

According to the military, Kohavi stated, “At no point was Shireen identified and at no point was there any intentional gunfire carried out by IDF soldiers in a manner intended to harm the journalist.”

According to the military, throughout the event, troops were firing toward people they had identified as armed Palestinian militants.

The findings have also been presented to the Military Prosecution for further examination as well as to the Military Advocate General (MAG) who decided that there is no suspicion of a criminal offense that would justify the opening of a Military Police investigation.

A statement by the MAG said the decision not to open a criminal investigation into the deadly incident “was based on the findings of the review, which determined that IDF soldiers only aimed at those who were identified as armed terrorists during the incident.”

The review found “no suspicion that a bullet was fired deliberately at anyone identified as a civilian and in particular at anyone identified as a journalist.”

Israel responds to findings

Kohavi called her death a “devastating incident” adding that it “took place during operational activity intended to prevent Palestinian terrorism, which calls for the harming of Israeli civilians.”

He stated that the IDF operates professionally “every night while taking actions to avoid harming noncombatants. The IDF takes great efforts to this end, while working to allow press coverage and freedom of the press. Palestinian terrorists hide and operate from within the Palestinian population, endangering their lives on an ongoing basis. This is an immense challenge for the IDF, but it is our professional and moral duty to stop and prevent terrorism, as well as achieving our goal – to defend Israeli civilians and the State of Israel.”

The IDF, however, did not present any new detailed evidence that could sway those who already believed in Israel’s culpability.

Local and International NGOs that have backed Abu Akleh’s family slammed the IDF’s conclusions, including Yesh Din, Adalah and B’Tselem.

“It’s not an investigation, it’s whitewash. It was no mistake, it’s policy,” B’Tselem said.

Israel's under international pressure

"Enormous public and international pressure were needed to make Israel spurt a faint confession that one of its soldiers had killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, while at the same time shaking off any responsibility for her death," B’Tselem charged.

"The killing of Abu Akleh is the predictable result of Israel’s outrageous open-fire policy in the Occupied Territories. This policy claims more and more victims while the whitewash continues undisturbed," it added. 

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists Middle East and North Africa program coordinator Sherif Mansour said the IDF conclusions were "late and incomplete."

"They provided no name for Shireen Abu Akleh’s killer and no other information than his or her own testimony that the killing was a mistake,” Mansour said. 

“That does not provide the answers–by any measure of transparency or accountability–that her family and colleagues deserve," Mansour added.

A US report, published on July the 4th, concluded that the bullet that had killed Abu Akleh was too damaged and could not be tested.

Still, the Biden administration at the time said that she was "likely" but unintentionally shot by an Israeli soldier during the raid. 

Blinken met with Abu Akleh’s family and said last month: “I deplore the loss of Shireen. She was a remarkable journalist, an American citizen.” 

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said that Israel’s message to foreign officials is that “we are a country of laws where everything is investigated and this report is the most important argument. 

“Accidents happen,” Roll told 103fm. “It can be that IDF forces are at fault, but it was undoubtedly unintentional.”